A Mystery Tapestry, but Probably not a Norwegian One

A textile lover in Scotland bought a beautiful tapestry recently. It was thought to be Norwegian, and she wrote to me about whether I recognized the design. Without a formal title, I’ll refer to it as the “knights and grapes” tapestry. Do you recognize this tapestry?

180 x 137 cm (app. 6′ by 4.5′)

Interestingly, I had seen this image before. A Norwegian collector sent it to me some months ago and asked if I recognized it. She wrote, “I wonder if you might know this tapestry maker? I can’t figure out who it can be. It is supposed to be Scandinavian, and it is marked 1948, MHT and S t (or  S ✝) Something familiar about it… (But feels too “pretty” to be Norwegian, actually. Or do I forget someone obvious?)”

To me, some design elements in the knights and grapes tapestry don’t look particularly Norwegian. The round towers look more Continental. 

I wrote back, “I don’t recognize the tapestry image you sent. It makes sense to me that is is a mid-century piece. I see what you mean about it seeming to “pretty” to be Norwegian. I think the figures seem a bit too rounded. Even the pretty images from artists around the mid-century time in Norway (the Else Halling era) that I’ve seen are more angular in their design.” 

Here are two Norwegian tapestries woven at nearly the same time as the knights and grapes tapestry. Both of them favor backgrounds packed with angles and stylized designs, different than the flavor of the background in the knights and grapes tapestry. For example, here is a tapestry designed by Kåre Jonsborg that hangs in the Oslo City Hall. It was hung in 1950.

 “Batalje på Lilletorget” by Kåre M. Jonsborg.  The tapestry was sensational in its time due to its size, 7.5 x 3.6 meters.  Photo: Frode Inge Helland. Tapestry in Oslo City Hall. Reconstruction of faded colors. May not be exacltly like the original, but gives an impression of its original appearance.

Here is a tapestry designed by Else Poulssen from around the same time period, from 1946.

Else Poulsson. St. Hallvard. 1946. Photo by Ingvild Brekke Myklebust. From the website of the Oslo Regional Art Collection.

Here is a detail from the St. Hallvard tapestry. I love the contemporary clothing and the men at work in this one.

Else Poulsson. St. Hallvard. 1946. Photo by Ingvild Brekke Myklebust (detail). From the website of the Oslo Regional Art Collection.

The new owner sent me additional interesting clues with an image of the reverse side of the knights and grapes tapestry. Most Norwegian tapestry weavers (but not necessarily Swedish weavers) wove in the ends on the reverse of the tapestry, making the back as lovely as the front. This tapestry has clipped-off ends.

Many Norwegian weavers used wool from the indigenous spelsau sheep, yarn spun from long guard hairs, hard-spun and almost lustrous. The yarn on the reverse of the knights and grapes tapestry looks fluffier than I would expect in a Norwegian tapestry. There are also sections with a double interlock join, which is not common in Norwegian billedvev, or pictorial tapestry. 

Perhaps the tapestry is Swedish or Danish? But WHO KNOWS? Perhaps a Norwegian weaver studied abroad and then wove this tapestry. Do YOU KNOW? Do you recognize this image? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, so let me know if there are flaws in my analysis.

More Clues: Update, January 29, 2023

My friend Annemor Sundbø is always the person most likely to have gems of knowledge. She looked at the other initials on the mystery tapestry and wondered — perhaps that is the weaver Synnøve Thorne? Thorne was a mid-20th-century tapestry weaver. She worked for A/S Norsk Billedvev (A/S Norwegian Tapestry), the studio run by Else Halling from 1959-1967, and continued weaving for Den Norske Husflidforening (the Norwegian Handcraft Association) until 1982. Else Halling and her studio were responsible for the creation of many monumental tapestries for buildings constructed in Norway in the years following the Second World War. (See the article, “Norwegian Tapestry in the Post-War Years” in the Norwegian Textile Letter.)

“Blooming Vegetation,” 1967, was designed by Kåre Jonsborg, and woven by Else Halling and Synnøve Thorne. You can see the initials of all three contributors woven into the tapestry. https://www.nasjonalmuseet.no/samlingen/objekt/OK-1968-0116

The Norsk Billedvev studio produced tapestries designed by noted artists and woven by Else Halling, Synnøve Thorne, and others. In the book about the studio written by Øisten Parmann, Norsk Billedvev: Et Atelier og en Epoke (Norwegian Tapestry: A Studio and an Epoch, Dreyers Forlag, 1982), many tapestries woven by Synnøve Thorne are listed and illustrated. They include designs by Kåre Jonsborg, Håkon Stenstadsvold, Bjarne Rise, Karen Holtsmark, and Alf Rolfsen.

How is this relevant to our mystery tapestry? Looking through the work of these mid-century Norwegian artists, none of the images seem to have the same style or sensibility of the knights and grapes tapestry. Also, I looked at all the images of tapestries woven by Synnøve Thorne, and in those I could discern (sometimes the images weren’t crisp enough) – eight in all – her initials were always written as ST, with a capital T, and sometimes followed by a lower case h, as in STh.

I didn’t see any tapestries with her initials written as a capital S and lower case t, as we see in the knights and grapes tapestry.

Synnøve Thorne was clearly a skilled weaver, and wove in Norway during the time the knights and grapes tapestry was woven. But I was not able to find another tapestry with the same style of signature initials.